Q: My kids (five and seven) are in a really annoying stage right now where everything has to be “fair.” Every little thing is scrutinized to make sure that the other sister doesn’t have a tiny bit more of a good thing or a tiny bit less of an unwanted one. I know it’s normal because I hear myself channeling my parents with “well sometimes life isn’t fair!” but I know adults who seem hung up on fairness and I don’t want my kids to turn out like that. How should a parent handle the not-fair stage?_____________________________________________________________________________________
A: When children complain about something not being fair they are usually saying something isn’t equal – he gets to stay up later than I do, I have more chores than she does. But as this visual illustrates, equality and equity are not the same thing. Equality refers to people getting the same thing; be it snack, support, or responsibilities. Equity refers to giving people what they need to be successful, whether success is measured in feeling satiated, feeling supported, or developing responsibility. So when a nine-year-old receives more of a snack than a three-year-old and they both finish feeling satiated, the snack wasn’t equal but it was equitable. If the nine and three-year-old both have the chore of washing the dishes, that is equal but not equitable (and not a good idea).
Not-fair moments are normal and healthy. Kids need to observe and wrestle with the concept of unfairness in life. What you’re worried about is a not-fair mentality. This results in playing the victim and blaming others every time things don’t turn out their way. The child constantly whining, “My teacher/coach/friend isn’t fair!” can become the adult constantly complaining, “My boss/spouse/life isn’t fair.” We need to help our kids with two things to prevent not-fair moments from becoming a victim mentality: acceptance and empowerment. Acceptance because life truly sometimes isn’t fair (you practice more than the starting player but you stay on the bench), and if you can’t accept that you will suffer (not struggle. We want kids to struggle sometimes because that is growth. Suffering is different). Empowerment because we often are in the position to make change – for ourselves and for others. Deciding something isn’t fair and then problem-solving a healthy and effective solution can and does change the world (think Civil Rights Movement).
Start by giving kids the vocabulary to talk about this (fair/unfair, justice/injustice, equal/unequal, equitable/inequitable, etc.), and then work with them on expressing their thoughts and feelings about the perceived injustice. Talk to them logically about the decision they take issue with, guide them in brainstorming a solution if one is available, and work with them on healthy communication and conflict skills if they decide to pursue it. If they don’t, work on radically accepting that which we wouldn’t have chosen. Restrain yourself from compensating for life’s unfairnesses by making them “right.” If Grandma gave the first grandchild $2,000 on their 18th birthday, but due to finances gave the next grandchild a Target gift card, what message do you send your young adult if you run out and buy them $2,000 worth of stuff just to make it “even”? If this is a pattern, they might learn that someone will balance out injustices for them and they won’t get good at acceptance or problem-solving.
As with almost all of the issues we tackle in this column, working on this starts in the home. In Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish point out that children don’t need to be treated equally, they need to be treated uniquely. One child might need more TLC than the other after being snubbed at school; another might need more help with homework. Giving each child the same thing could remove any chance of fighting about “fairness” but might not be meeting the need or want of each kid. Give according to need: How much applesauce would you like? How many hugs do you need tonight? But what about when your kids pull out the big guns – “Who do you love more?” Instead of answering with “I love you both the same” consider being even more genuine and thoughtful by speaking to the specialness of your love for them: “There is no one else like you in the world and I love you uniquely.” I’m not promising you won’t get the eye-roll and “Moo-ooom!” but at least this answer is absolutely true.